Imagine yourself in Washington, D.C., charged with the task of honouring 32 murdered journalists at a session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. You have been allotted five minutes. What would you do?Two weeks ago, speaking for a joint delegation from PEN International, PEN Canada and the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP), the Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue read the names of Honduras’ fallen journalists — and spoke of the ordinary lives behind their extraordinary courage. “Celín Orlando Acosta Zelaya held his five-year old daughter’s hand as they walked, just as I do when I take my children to school each day. But he was a journalist and lived in Honduras. He was murdered in front of her.”One journalist was killed in an Internet café, checking email; another was gunned down while driving his car. And so it went, with tragic, unbearable monotony, until 32 names had been read aloud, with the word asesinado (“murdered”) slicing the air like a guillotine, hinting at the awful price Honduran journalists have paid these past five years for their stubborn insistence on freedom of expression. The discomfort of the Honduran government representatives can be clearly seen on the OAS website video (http://youtu.be/NhksEdvQmAE?t=23m43s). Enrigue ended with a line that could have been written about any of the hundreds of threatened writers that PEN International defends each year: “When you save the life of someone who writes in freedom, you save the world for a lot of people.”
Details of violence, intimidation and targeted killings which have overwhelmed Honduras since the ouster of President José Manuel Zelaya appear in Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity, a joint PEN-IHRP report released in mid-January. The report highlights how the 2009 coup that resulted in Zelaya’s removal allowed a culture of impunity to flourish even though “the roots of the crisis lie further back in Honduras’ history, notably in (the state’s) failure during the demilitarization process that began in the 1980s to hold those who had committed serious human rights violations accountable for their actions.” For at least a generation, there has been little public confidence in the country’s security forces, and chronic corruption within the police force persists, despite decades of “purification.” Transnational drug cartels have used the recent power vacuum, to establish new territory and terrorize journalists with a familiar combination of threats and murderous violence.
That said, freedom of expression in Honduras has clearly suffered serious restrictions since the coup in June 2009. Journalists have been threatened, harassed, attacked and murdered with near impunity, sometimes in circumstances that indicate the involvement of state agents. (In the cases of 38 journalists killed between 2003 and 2013, the state has secured only two convictions: an impunity rate of 95 per cent.) Predictably, this has had a devastating impact on human rights and the rule of law, not least because violence against journalists often silences coverage of corruption, organized crime, drug trafficking and sensitive political reportage. Fearing for their safety, many journalists have learned to censor themselves, or fled to safer countries.
Before Bill C-20, which will establish a free-trade agreement between Canada and Honduras, receives its third reading, the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade has been asked to provide its recommendations on the deal. On Thursday, the committee will have the opportunity to hear evidence from PEN Canada and IHRP representatives. If the committee sees fit, it could recommend that Canada introduce human rights conditionalities into the Honduras agreement, as happened in 2008, following a study of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. While side agreements like these are not yet commonplace, they are no longer unusual. The European Union’s “Cotonou Agreement” with African, Caribbean and Pacific states has comparable human rights commitments, premised on regular assessments, conditional financial protocols, and possible sanctions for lack of enforcement.
As a major donor, and a prospective preferential trading partner, Canada should press Honduras for greater protection for freedom of expression. Freedom, democracy, and the rule of law cannot be expected to take root in countries in which journalists are routinely attacked, or killed, for reporting on crime, corruption and other matters of vital public interest.
For years we have repeatedly been told that free markets promote free speech. It could more accurately be agreed that the rule of law, respect for free speech and the resulting transparency fuel a healthy market place and stable trade. Free speech protects corporations from the instability and unprofessional impacts of corruption and crony capitalism. It is free speech which has allowed democracies to develop long-term market policies and strategies for growth.
Through PEN and the IHRP, writers in Canada and Honduras, along with writers throughout the Americas, ask the Canadian government to ensure that Human Rights conditions are included in the trade agreement being negotiated with Honduras. Lives are at stake. So is the health of the economic relationship.
Essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul is the International President of PEN International.